Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Eaarth. Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

2010. VIC: Melbourne. Black Inc. P/back. 258 pages.

Bill McKibben is an author and founder of the environmental organizations Step it up and and was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming.

So he has been warning us for a long time. Now, he says in Eaarth, it is too late.

He writes that we live on a different planet than the one on which civilisation began. Global warming and peak oil are not future problems for our grandchildren. And the effects of our fossil fuel experiment are hitting us now.

The changes could hardly be more fundamental! And they are irreversible.  “The earth that we knew – the only earth that we ever knew – is gone” (Pg:27).

Now, as I was preparing this Review a couple of things were happening around me: Reports were coming in that the BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico was continuing to grow, and all attempts to stem its flow were proving to be in vain.

Indeed, in a radio interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast last month, McKibben said that this year we will really sense God’s humour when the hurricane season strikes. They will go further inland and live longer, due to the sun’s rays being absorbed by the dark surface of the oil, warming the air, dropping even more record rain.

And while that interview was happening, reports were coming in that a water spout had crossed the coastline in far northern New South Wales causing extensive damage. Callers to ABC North Coast reported there had been falls of more than 270 millimetres of rain that morning.

About oil and oceans, for instance, McKibben says: “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as 25,000 hours of human manual labor – more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses 25 barrels each year, which is like finding 300 years of free labor annually. And that’s just the oil; there’s coal and gas, too” (Pg:27).

And: “The oceans… are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms of our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful” (Pg:45)

At the same time research is showing the earth’s ice caps and glaciers are melting with “disconcerting and unexpected speed” (Pg:45). We have already raised the temperature nearly a degree Celsius. How come?  Because of our emissions and our burning of cheap fossil fuel, a process “that Britian’s Royal Society described as ‘essentially irreversible’” (Pg:10).

If you are beginning to hear ‘doomsday’ and ‘apocalypse’ then I guess I can’t blame you. I had the same feelings as I read Eaarth.

We can be numbed by all the figures and percentages. We can say the scientists are probably overstating our woes. The anticipated future can be paralysed by our fears.

Indeed, it’s hard to brace ourselves “for the jump to a new world when we still, kind of, live in the old one… We’re so used to growth that we can’t imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as before” (Pg:102).

Well, McKibben is not all negative and alarmist. He does offer some suggestions, some words or metaphors, for change.  And those five words are: Durable, Sturdy, Stable, Hardy, Robust.

And for all of us that means reshaping our society: from big to smaller, from growth to maintenance, from expansion to scale down, from global to neighbourhood.

The task before us is how we might be able to scale back and survive a volatile Eaarth and hopefully save some core of civilisation.